Do you recoil a little when you hear the word “forgiveness”? You’re not alone.
Forgiveness is a concept often used to silence victims and give abusers a quick slap on the wrist without any real consequences for their behavior. No wonder it’s triggering to even hear it, let alone try to practice it.
“Forgiveness” is Traumatizing Victims
When clergy, therapists, friends, and family counsel victims to “just forgive” the abuser, they’re often ignoring the fact that the victim is experiencing significant trauma and deserves to focus on her own safety and healing, rather than channeling energy into forgiving their abuser.
“Forgiveness” usually translates to “absolution” – in other words, when victims are asked to forgive, they’re really being told to sweep the abuse under the rug so that everyone can move on.
This further traumatizes victims who need safety and support. Not trite advice.
If Forgiveness is Important to You, Consider This:
If you’re a victim, the concept of forgiveness may be important to you – but it can be confusing to try to forgive the abuser when forgiveness has always meant reconciliation and absolution.
Consider forgiveness meaning “Letting Go”: seeking your own safety while accepting that the abuser is who he is. Letting go of the relationship, if necessary. Letting go of any lingering self-blame or core beliefs that the abuser conditioned you to accept.
While holding on to your boundaries, holding on to the feelings and experiences that you need to process, and holding on to your right to justice and accountability.
Say THIS Instead of “Have You Tried Forgiving Him?”
If you’re the family, friend, clergy, or therapist of a victim of abuse, and you want to learn how to support her rather than further traumatize her by counseling her to forgive, try saying (and meaning) these phrases:
- How can I help you get more safety in your life?
- Do you want to hold the abuser accountable through the justice system? Can I help you to do that in any way?
- Can you give me an idea of your current level of safety?
- Can I do anything to support you?
- What resources do you need right now to feel like you can function on a day-to-day basis?
BTR.ORG Is Here For You
At BTR, we know how painful it is to be dismissed and minimized by others when they repeatedly tell you to try to forgive the abuser – it’s excruciating to try to explain yourself over and over.
Anne BTR.ORG (00:00):
I have Anne on today’s episode. She’s a member of our community and is a wife and a mom of three beautiful, growing kids. She was raised in a conservative Mennonite church. She’s passionate about giving voice to the experiences that sexual and religious abuse survivors face. Anne posted on social media and contacted us and we thought we need to talk with her about this issue. So her social media post said, “Saying that forgiveness is the key to restoring relationships, is placing a burden on the part of the offended, or victim, that God never meant for them to carry. God himself does not do that. Why do we force people to do it? Like it’s some kind of spiritual thing to do. It takes both repentance and forgiveness to save a relationship. The offended party can forgive all they want, but it takes repentance on the part of the offender to save a relationship and that is completely out of the victim’s control…
“No One Ever Says That Stopping the Harm is the Key to a Relationship”
John MacArthur has proven himself to not be a safe place for abuse victims in the past. And quotes like this, remind me again of how unsafe some of his teaching is. Please be discerning.” And then she posted a picture of someone else’s post and put an X through it. And it said that basically forgiveness is the key to restoring relationships rather than saying repentance is the key to restoring relationships, which nobody ever says that, right? Nobody ever says stopping the harm is the key to a relationship. And it’s really interesting that they don’t say that. And that would, oh, I don’t know, put the responsibility on the perpetrator of the abuse. And that’s kind of too hard. Apparently we need to put it on the woman.
When you saw this meme and you were like, “No.”, and you posted it, put an X through it and and said, “Hey, you know what? This is not cool guys.” Tell me how you began exploring what forgiveness is and how it looks.
“Forgiveness Meant That If You Forgive, It Never Really Happened”
Anne Guest (02:00):
So as a young adult, memories of sexual assault from a variety of sources began to surface for me. I was a very young child when I was group raped by a group of male adults from the Amish Mennonite culture. As a result, I grew up in a culture where forgiveness was something that was very much preached and taught, but it was the kind of forgiveness where everything goes back to normal. It was basically denial-based, if I can put it that way. So that’s how I grew up.
For many years I did not even remember what happened to me because obviously as you know, trauma can make somebody disassociate for obvious reasons in order for them to survive. I was no exception with that. It wasn’t until I had moved away and got married that all those trauma memories began to resurface for me. And then I started asking questions like, “What does forgiveness look like?” Because the first time I told someone my story about what happened to me as a child, I was told that I needed to become a victor and not a victim and I needed to forgive. And the forgiveness basically meant that if you forgive, it never really happened.
Anne BTR.ORG (03:20):
Was anyone prosecuted?
The Decision to Report Abuse Is Complex
Anne Guest (03:23):
That’s another big part of my story that a lot of people don’t know about. About five years ago I did report it, but the county that I grew up in, there’s a lot of rumors that there’s corruption in the county and a lot of the cases involving Amish and Mennonite girls never make it to court at all. In fact, I don’t know of one that has ever made it to the courthouse.
Anne BTR.ORG (03:48):
I am so proud of you for being so brave to report, especially under those circumstances. Most of the time women don’t report for good reason because reporting you get more traumatized through that. And so I’m proud of victims who also don’t report for really good reasons. So I’m not trying to say that people should do one or the other cause they’re both very traumatizing and complex. Wow, I am so sorry.
“They Don’t Even Consider the Consequences to the Victim”
Anne Guest (04:15):
I found out years later that the way they actually went about trying to get a confession in my case was something that is not normally done. And so again, it leads me to believe that there’s corruption there because things did not go far in my case. There would’ve been multiple felonies involved with that, so it wasn’t like it was something small. Put it that way.
Anne BTR.ORG (04:40):
In cases like this, and in so many cases it feels like heaven forbid the perpetrator who is a man have consequences from this that would be bad for his life. So we’re not gonna do anything. They don’t even consider the consequences to the victim that she has to bear no matter what.
Anne Guest (05:03):
Correct. Victims don’t have a choice about what kind of consequences and there are always consequences.
“The More I Wrote, The More I Connected With People”
Anne BTR.ORG (05:09):
So you get married and you remember these things. Is that when you started talking about it and trying to get some sort of either resolution or restitution, or even just to process what had happened to you? Is this when you start getting push back that you just need to forgive from your community? Are you still at this point active in the Mennonite community, active in your church?
Anne Guest (05:33):
I began blogging about abuse in 2016 or 2017. I can’t remember which year it was, but I was still very much in the middle of working through my own story. And I began writing because I realized how much of a need there was. I realized that there were so many other women like me who had gone through horrific things like that, and whenever you’re in the middle of something like that, you feel so alone.
My heart just went out to those people and I began connecting with some of them. And the more I wrote, the more I connected with people like that. I never dreamed that I would have that kind of a ministry. It kind of came out of the blue in a way. But I have been Mennonite all my life except for the last eight months. So we only recently have left the Mennonite culture and that’s a whole other story in itself that I probably won’t get into today.
What is a Healthy Definition of Forgiveness?
Anne BTR.ORG (06:30):
In a nutshell, did you leave because of these issues?
Anne Guest (06:34):
Yes, I would definitely say that played a part in it, for sure.
Anne BTR.ORG (06:39):
So how would you describe forgiveness, first in a way that is unhelpful, that is not what God intended, and then how would you describe it in the way that it’s actually useful and helpful and healing and in the way that God intended? So let’s start with what it’s not supposed to be, but what the culture generally thinks it is and then go into what is actually useful.
“Forgiving Did Not Make it Go Away or Make it Less, or Heal Me”
Anne Guest (07:05):
Whenever I think about forgiveness and the things that it is not, I often hear a lot of cliches about forgiveness that are just unhelpful, and honestly, they’re so untrue in so many ways. Things like “forgiveness restores relationships”- is that what happened when Jesus forgave the people who nailed him to the cross? Doesn’t there have to be genuine repentance on the part of perpetrators in order for the forgiveness Jesus extended to restore relationship?
Things like “forgiveness heals you”- I don’t think that forgiveness heals you in that it takes the pain away. It didn’t take Jesus’ pain away. It definitely did not take my pain away. I mean, I would have flashback after flashback and for years I’ve had flashbacks and there was a time in my life where I forgave every single time I had a flashback. But forgiving did not make it go away or make it less or heal me, if that makes sense.
Does Forgiveness Free You?
Some people will say that forgiveness frees you. Man, I’m kind of on the fence with that one <laugh> because I guess it depends what you think of as free. I don’t think that forgiveness freed Jesus from the suffering that he was dealing with. So what do people mean when they say that? I definitely would not say that forgiveness is freeing just because I think it gives victims a false narrative about what it does.
Some people will say that forgiveness helps you not stay stuck in your past and helps you move on. All these cliches are things that just rub me the wrong way. Did Jesus move on? What is meant by moving on? How does that look?
There are people who will say that if you’re still talking about what happened to you, then you haven’t forgiven.
“Forgiveness is One of My Major Triggers”
And my response to that is I find it really interesting that Jesus wasn’t afraid to show his scars after he was resurrected. Forgiveness is different than that.
And then also there’s people that will say that if you can’t be around the person who hurt you, then how can you say you’ve forgiven them? And again, I come back to that whole repentance thing. Jesus loved the people who hurt him whenever they nailed him on the cross. But as far as having a personal relationship with them that was not there unless they repented.
Also, I want to say this too before I get much further- I find it really ironic that I’m even talking about forgiveness because forgiveness is one of my major triggers. I just want people to understand that if forgiveness is triggering for them, I totally get it. And it’s okay if you just click off the podcast and not listen to this. I get it. I’ve been there. Even to this day, if I don’t know the person who’s speaking about forgiveness and I don’t know if they’re safe or not, I sometimes won’t even listen to whatever it is or read an article. That’s how triggering forgiveness is for me. It’s been used against me way too many times.
Forgiveness is Often Used as a Form of Spiritual Abuse
Anne BTR.ORG (10:06):
Yeah. As a form of spiritual abuse.
Anne Guest (10:08):
Anne BTR.ORG (10:10):
I just thought of a little example that I never thought of before when you said if you talk about it then you haven’t forgiven. That’s kind of like saying if you talk about when you went to college then you didn’t actually graduate as if someone’s supposed to pretend that that time of their life didn’t happen. Or you’re not supposed to talk about your pregnancy or your baby didn’t get born.
It’s a weird thing to be like, “Okay, you can talk about your pregnancy, you can talk about college, you can talk about high school, you can talk about your job, you can talk about all these things, but you can’t talk about this.” Or it means that you are still severely damaged or something’s wrong with you or something like that. It’s ridiculous. We should all be able to share anything that happened to us regardless of whether we’re still in a lot of pain and a lot of trauma or we’re feeling better. I can feel fantastic and still be like, “Oh man, I remember the time that my husband screamed in my face.”
Would You Say, “Forgiveness Heals You” to a Victim of a Crime?
Anne Guest (11:24):
Exactly. And the whole thing of forgiveness, healing, one of the things that I keep going back to is I keep comparing trauma to physical trauma. Saying that forgiveness heals you and telling somebody that after they have been hit by a drunk driver, we would not say that to somebody who is a paraplegic who was hit by a drunk driver. You know what I mean? It’s just dumb. We don’t say stuff like that. It’s said all the time to abuse survivors. Why? I just wish people could understand how much these cliches hurt.
Anne BTR.ORG (12:00):
I think the main reason is misogyny. I think the main reason is because they do not want the perpetrator to experience the consequences of that. They would prefer that nobody rocks the boat and that there’s forgiveness and that everybody can still be happily together and all in the same room and go to a family event or stuff like that. They don’t want the consequences of that to affect him. They do not mind if it affects you.
“Forgiveness Basically Means, Let Go“
Anne Guest (12:33):
I don’t like cliches and so this is going to sound cliche and I hate that, but when I look at forgiveness according to a biblical standpoint, forgiveness basically means to let go. And if I had to put into words what that looks like, I would repeat the words of Jesus when he was being nailed to the cross. And he said, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.” I think that that shows how Jesus let go. He didn’t necessarily let go of the pain. It wasn’t that he denied the pain. There was no denial involved, but he understood that God was just, and that God would execute justice on his behalf, and that’s why it was safe to let go.
One of the verses that kind of started me on the whole forgiveness journey is the verse in Ephesians 4:32 where it says, “Forgive even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.”, and I kept saying, “What does that look like? What does it look like to forgive like Jesus did?” Then I went back to the crucifixion and I was like, “So what did forgiveness for Jesus look like?” And again, it’s not this thing of relationship, it’s this thing of letting go and and knowing that God is going to execute justice on your behalf. That’s to me in a short nutshell what forgiveness is.
Can Forgiveness Be Acceptance That People Are Who They Are?
Anne BTR.ORG (13:58):
With that example of Christ on the cross, one of the thoughts I just had is “acceptance”- accepting that this person is the way that they are. Christ is all powerful, right? So in that moment he could have been like, “Oh, I’m gonna get myself off the cross. I am going to shock these guys into repentance or something. I’m going to send hail down on their heads and they’ll take me off this cross.” He could have gotten himself off the cross but he didn’t. He accepted that they were the way they were and he accepted the consequences of their actions.
In our case, I think so many victims who are married to their abuser, in the case of spouse abuse, the woman does not want to break up her family. She really genuinely wants him to be an appropriate, kind, healthy person to be able to be in relationship with him. But he is not.
Acceptance Can Mean Separating Yourself From The Harm
And so Christ’s example of accepting that that’s the situation and also accepting the consequences of that, that would mean that it is appropriate to separate yourself from the harm it is appropriate to keep yourself safe. In Christ’s case, it was okay that he died and that’s an awful consequence. But then he was resurrected in three days. God always has a plan. So knowing that God has a plan for us, it’s okay to accept reality. It’s okay to accept the consequences of this. It’s okay to know that you have to face them head on and accept them for what they are.
Does “Letting it Go” Mean Not Reporting Abuse? No!
Anne Guest (15:42):
A hundred percent agree with that.
I also want to say that there will be people that sometimes twist things to say that letting go and giving it to God means that you can’t get the state involved with consequences. And to that I just say, in Romans 13, it says that those who execute judgment on evil doers are ministers of God. Letting go does not mean that I don’t do my part to see that justice is done, again, through what God has said about ministers of God executing judgment on those who do evil. And so I just wanna make that clear that that’s not where I’m going with this at all. Because I know that there are people who believe that. And that’s how I would’ve believed at one point too.
“The Police…Were Angels of Mercy”
Anne BTR.ORG (16:27):
That is not the way to go. It’s that they need to be judged and that you need to separate yourself or be delivered from wickedness. Judges who appropriately protect victims from abuse are agents of God to deliver people from wickedness. My story is, generally speaking, only emotional and psychological abuse and sexual coercion. One of the very few instances, it was only about three that were physical, the police actually came to my house and arrested him. They were angels of mercy. That is how I recognized what was happening and that is what delivered me from the abuse.
So having someone recognize and hold someone accountable is a godly thing. And I don’t understand why accepting and just, kind of, turning your eyes away from wickedness rather than confronting it is godly in any way. I don’t think it is in any way. Just helping someone separate from it is what is the righteous thing to do.
Justice & Forgiveness
Anne Guest (17:37):
Anne BTR.ORG (17:38):
So let’s talk about that. Why is the concept of justice so important when it comes to forgiveness?
Anne Guest (17:43):
I grew up believing that there was no difference between justice and revenge. But in my own words, I would say that revenge is getting someone back 10 times worse than what they got you. But justice is different in that it’s basically a consequence. There needs to be consequences when wrong is done and God is both justice and mercy and we see it over and over and over again. He holds both of those at the same time.
You can’t have mercy without justice because it just becomes injustice. And justice without mercy becomes injustice too. And so I feel like they go together and when we let one or the other slide, there’s a lot of injustice that happens. I think the church particularly has really erred on the side of mercy without understanding how just God is and that truth and justice go together. You can have mercy and you can have justice together at the same time. And that’s what Jesus did over and over again. He held both of those at the same time, and I think we need to do that better with that too.
Religious Institutions Often Put More Emphasis on Reconciliation Rather Than Safety
Anne BTR.ORG (18:51):
Talk about the ways in which religious settings put more emphasis on victims forgiving than abusers repenting and how that does great harm to both victims and abusers.
Anne Guest (19:02):
Yeah. Like you said, churches have a tendency to try to restore relationships between perps and survivors in an effort to make the situation just go away. And I think part of the reason that they do that is because it’s feels way less ugly and it’s way less messy in a way. However, the damage that happens when that goes on just leaves a trail of devastation in both the victim and the perp. For the victim, obviously we understand how that leaves a trail of devastation for them. But it also leaves a trail of devastation for the perp because they basically get away with it. I feel like we pat perps on the back on their way to eternal damnation while we shoot the wounded because our theology on forgiveness is so one-sided.
When Clergy Treats Perpetrators Like Victims
Anne BTR.ORG (20:01):
A perpetrator of lifelong emotional and psychological abuse and sexual coercion gets caught and then they say, “Oh, I’m a porn addict. I’m so sorry.” They’re still lying, but they sound like they’re telling the truth. And then their clergy, maybe even their therapist starts giving them gold stars, patting ’em on the back, like, “You’re being honest! Good job! Oh, you are the victim cause you’ve been an addict and your dad didn’t play baseball with you as a kid and you felt shame.” (as if all the victims haven’t had those same things happen to them). “And so we’re so proud of you, good job!” Rather than being like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. You’ve been abusive for 20 years and we just caught you. So we’re not going to believe a word you say. We’re going to keep our eyes on you from a safe distance to watch if you’re really healthy for the next three years, and we’re not going to believe a word that comes out of your mouth.” That would be the appropriate response. Instead they just start getting pats on the back or “good job for finally telling the truth”, and “We’re so proud of you for repenting”, when they’re just trying to, sort of, manage their image after they got caught. Is that the kind of thing you’re talking about?
“Complete Acknowledgement of Abuse Without Excuses & Without Minimization”
Anne Guest (21:17):
Yes. You explained it very well, <laugh>.
I think there is a lack of knowing what repentance looks like. It’s not just a simple apology as you just said. There has to be complete acknowledgement of sin without excuses and without minimization. And there has to be acceptance of all the consequences. Repentance always respects the boundaries of the victim. And they understand the damage that they’ve done to the point where they’re willing to give space. They are not there trying to restore relationship until the victim’s ready. In other words, it’s all in the victim’s hands. It’s not about the perp at all.
A perp will not care if the whole world knows about what he did. He’s not out there trying to keep his reputation intact. I think that’s a huge one. That’s a huge red flag when someone’s out there trying to get people to quiet down about what happened.
When forgiveness is a culture strong point, while genuine repentance is a weak point, there will always be injustice that thrives in that culture. Abuse thrives when just a quick, “I’m sorry if I hurt you” is seen as repentance. Abuse thrives when perps can just cry a few crocodile tears and everything goes back to normal after that. Abuse thrives when the right words are seen as repentance and when victims are just forced to forgive.
How Can Churches Become Safer?
Anne BTR.ORG (22:46):
What are some ways churches could become safer?
Anne Guest (22:51):
So the thing I keep coming back to is just the lack of self-awareness that churches and institutions have. We do not do well with self-examination and collective repentance as a group. There’s so much humility that is needed and there has to be a willingness to listen to victims. How else are you going to know there are wolves inside your church if you’re not willing to listen to the people who are saying, “This person’s not okay.”
No One Can Tell You You Need To Forgive
I refuse to tell someone that they need to forgive. And and the reason I refuse to tell someone that they need to forgive is simply because, especially if they’ve grown up in the church, they know what forgiveness is. It’s not a foreign concept to them. But I don’t get to choose when forgiveness is a part of their story. That’s up to God. And I think especially if the victim is someone who loves Jesus and who has a relationship with God, God is going to show them, when that time comes, when and what forgiveness will look like for them. I don’t need to push it. They need space to grieve and lament. And I think that’s the kind of thing the church needs to give them.
Churches Can Ask, “Are You Safe? How Can We Help You Be More Safe?”
Anne BTR.ORG (24:08):
Yeah, I don’t even think forgiveness should even be a topic of conversation.
Anne Guest (24:12):
Yeah. I totally agree. Totally agree.
Anne BTR.ORG (24:15):
I love that you said that- if this is triggering for you, just turn it off because it shouldn’t even be brought up in any way, shape or form. The only thing that needs to be brought up in abuse cases is safety: “Are you safe? How can we help you be more safe?”
Anne Guest (24:31):
Yes. And you know what? Abuse survivors will absolutely heal when they’re safe.
It’s Impossible to Heal When You’re Still Being Harmed
Anne BTR.ORG (24:37):
And then they’re looking at an abuse victim wondering why she’s not healing when she’s still being abused emotionally and psychologically. And it would be impossible to heal when you’re still receiving that harm.
So Anne, thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts on forgiveness and how we can re-frame it to actually help victims get to safety. Thank you so much for coming on today’s episode.
Anne Guest (25:02):
Hey, it’s awesome to be on with you. Thank you so much for having me on.